We have two outdoor cats at our home named Hobbes and Merlin. They have a house, a food bowl and a litter box in our garage. During the day, we open the garage door and let them run free. At night, we close them in the garage to protect them from larger predators they might encounter after dark.
We feed them. We give them fresh water. We give them a warm, dry place to sleep. We scratch their heads. We brush their fur. We play with them.
They have no fence or other physical constraints to keep them at our home.
When we open the door in the morning, they run quickly out of the garage into our yard. They rarely stray far from our home, and they almost always come back to the garage at night.
They have complete freedom to leave if they choose, and yet they always return because we meet their needs.
On occasion, one or the other of them will fail to return to the garage. The first time one of them stayed out for the night, we were concerned that he had left permanently. When we opened the garage door the next morning, he came running in to greet us.
This scenario has happened a few other times since the first event, and they have always returned.
They return for food. They return for our attention. They return for clean water. They return for a dry bed. Sometimes they exercise their freedom, and yet they return.
They return because they get their needs met with us. We do not have to force them to stay. They choose to stay with us to get their needs met.
Observing Hobbes and Merlin has taught me a valuable lesson about working with people. Give them freedom, meet their needs, and they return when you let them go. When they return under these conditions, they do so gladly and without reservation.
(Originally published in my Resolving Conflict in Teams Blog.)